Sunday, June 28, 2009

Not Only In Berkeley

I have just arrived in Berkeley, California. It’s a town with many names, among them Berzerkely, The People’s Republic of Berkeley. When people talk about California as the Left Coast, it’s often Berkeley and nearby San Francisco of which they speak.

And so, walking the streets of Berkeley for the first time this afternoon, I had certain viewing expectations, most of which I’m sure you could rattle off yourself: pungently-scented big-bearded men with dreadlocks, Bob Marley T-Shirts and Rasta hats; skateboards, panhandlers, free love, and earth mothers; organic foods, art house cinemas, smoke shops, independent booksellers; crystals, piercings, graffiti, tattoos and solar powered everything.

But I must say, the reality was quite tame. Shattuck Avenue, a main thoroughfare near the campus of UC Berkeley, certainly has an independent feeling to it, with far more self-owned sorts of businesses than chains, including the wonderful Pegasus Fine Books, the Tony Award-winning Berkeley Rep Theater and Bowzer’s Pizza, which hosts on one wall photos of such famous dogs as Toto, Astro, and Rowlf from the Muppets.

Muppet Cool.

There are also skateboarders, tattoos and people asking for money. But really, what’s notable at first glance is not the community’s outrageousness but its sensory stimulation. The hills of Berkeley are an Edenic land of vibrant hues, spectacular vistas and rich, sweet scents that turn your head. Walking here you begin to appreciate what it must be like to be a bee in springtime, every flowerbed, a new, irresistible seduction.

Flowers in a Berkeley nursery.  

Still, the perception of Berkeley as radical is not simply a visitor’s point of view. One California friend told me that everyone selling marijuana on the streets of Berkeley was a cop, an idea that seemed to take a bit of the grunge-sparkle out of the Berkeley image.

Likewise, walking home today across the Berkeley campus, I came upon a group of college age students, looking as though a part of some sort of orientation. As I passed five or six college-age Asian men from the group, in button-up shirts and dress slacks, ran forward, hollering loud and awkwardly, mentally looking over their shoulder as they raced to a finish line to complete some sort of ice breaking exercise. I turned to find myself approaching a heavy set African American man in baggy clothes, carrying a triple ply garbage bag as big as himself filled with cans. He grinned at me and shook his head. “Only in Berkeley, son.”

And I thought of how often I’ve seen this very scene enacted at orientations on other college campuses. Or of how Cambridge, Massachusetts, too, is also known as the “People’s Republic”, and how before finals week at Harvard, the entire student body descends on the Freshman quad and screams over and over in the darkness, while, if you can believe it, freshmen race in a circle around the quad, naked. Known as the Harvard Howl, the whole thing plays out like a (really creepy) scene from Dante.

I thought all these things, and I grinned back and nodded politely. It all seems pretty tame, but then again, it’s only my first day.


ddunbar said...

You're making me miss Berkeley, Jim. Try Telegraph Avenue and People's Park for a bit more of the type of experience you'd expect.

Jim McDermott, SJ said...

Don, Will do! I was singing your praises among Detroit Province guys last week... hope your ears were ringing...